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Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Music and dance


January, 2017

"Shot" by Spectrum Dance Theater

You might go to a Spectrum Dance Theater performance for many reasons: you never go see dance, and you think it’s about time; you heard Spectrum is controversial, and you’re feeling feisty these days; you got the ticket from a friend who came down with the flu; you read that Spectrum’s current show, “Shot,” is about Black Lives Matter, and you want to do something political and be a good citizen. 

Or, maybe you're a season subscriber welcoming another adventure. Any of these might be your reason to see this show during its brief run at Seattle Rep.

Let me give you one more: this is a moving, fascinating, flawed, memorable piece of political dance theater, coinciding with the inauguration of an administration that is going to require a lot from brave artists willing to put their work out there and have an influence.
Ensemble members
Paul Giarratano and Fausto Rivera Contreras; Photo by Nate Watters


In “Shot,” Byrd starts with facts: killings of unarmed black men and women by police happen with tragic frequency in America. You’ve heard about it, talked about it, perhaps argued about it. As with so much in our public discourse, the narrative is often reduced to simple extremes: Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.

"Shot" highlights these polarities, and is able to transcend them by crafting an idiom of the body, focusing on human beings caught up in the machinery of institutional racism and oppression.

Byrd places his discourse of movement on the steps and street in front of a massive, multi-level, whitewashed screen, embedded in which stands an arched doorway and rising steps flanked by two glass-globed light-posts: a hall of justice, or perhaps the impassive façade of a precinct police station. Fourteen young dancers enter as lights flicker and flash; sounds of police action rise; a mosaic of images flutter like torn pages of a newspaper across the screen, images reduced to memes of all-to-familiar desperation, violence, and fear. 

Out of this cacophony, motifs and patterns emerge: life in motion, life in the body -- solo, pairs, triads, ensembles. Violence is there; fear; love and loss; family; rupture; oppression. And death. Again and again, in the midst of this life and struggle, a figure falls, shockingly inert. Taut, synchronized group gestures of astonishing technical expertise sharply contrast with fluid moments of intimacy and warmth.

“Shot” features the music of two important artists: Jaimeo Brown and Julius Eastman. Their shifting, transcendent fusions of sound create another rich layer in the multi-sensory experience of “Shot.” The soundtrack is a flowing river of voices, tones, genres: blues filtered through the news, global rhythms in the local pulse of life and death.

Byrd makes a radical, unsettling choice midway through the piece, as he reads from the stage an informational page or two about "the talk" that many black parents now have with their adolescent children about surviving an encounter with police, listing the "ten things to remember." This interrupts the idiom of the performance with an abrupt foray into unadorned language, followed by more words as actors representing opposing sides debate, escalate, and finally resort to slurs and insults to shout each other down.

It's an interesting choice, a risky one, and detracts more than it contributes to the piece as a whole. The work is a tribute to lives lost, loved ones left behind, displaying the human-driven machinery of death powered by institutional, embedded racism. The return to the last third of the performance after this rupture is a relief, but the broken thread of the experience is never quite made whole again. If this is Byrd's intent, it backfires.



The human lives depicted and remembered on this street are composed of many threads: work, family, hope, loss, heavy burdens made bearable by the lightness of love and community. "Shot" succeeds best by weaving voice, music and movement into a coherent visual and visceral experience. The falling bodies, and the anguished cries of "Don't shoot him! Don't you shoot him!"from the video recording made by Rakeyia Scott as her husband was gunned down in September, 2016, are enough to drive home the brokenness of American justice and the tragedy of police violence against people of color.

This is work that honors and eulogizes victims of systemic injustice; that sets its sights on transformation and healing, not polarization. It is a work of love and anger that should be widely seen. 

"Shot" 
Spectrum Dance Theater
Executive Artistic Director Donald Byrd

At Seattle Repertory Leo K. Theater

January 19 - February 4, 2017






January, 2012

Mind-bending "Brooklyn Rider" at Town Hall


Pina Bausch - The Rite of Spring
Occasionally a cultural experience emerges indelibly as a peak life event. By grace or luck, I made it to Pina Bausch's 1984 Rite of Spring at Brooklyn Academy of Music after reading a review in the New York Times while living in Manhattan in the early 80's. That electrifying performance opened my eyes to hitherto unimagined dimensions, as though from a balcony-seat view of the sun, a most elemental force of nature teeming with energy and creativity. I bounded out of that venue a changed man.

Joshua Roman
I no longer live in New York, and can't depend on cultural events around every corner to kindle flames in my soul. Thankfully, on Sunday night, January 29, despite my low spirits, I decided to join my partner Warren at Town Hall for a concert by Brooklyn Rider, a string ensemble invited to Seattle by cellist Joshua Roman as part of his TownMusic Series.

O...M...G. This foursome, members of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, hooked me in the first startling seconds of their new composition, the mind-altering Seven Steps, a journey through texture, dissonance, harmony, fluidity of sound and movement unlike any piece of music I have heard. Riveting is too weak a word. Music beamed in to Earth via radio fromanother inhabited world somewhere in the galaxy (as could happen any time) would possibly recreate my first exposure to Seven Steps. By its conclusion I felt certain I was in for an unforgettable evening. 

Philip Glass' Suite from the film Bent followed, and fulfilled the prophecy of the first. Brooklyn Rider has made Glass' music a specialty, evidenced by their disc Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass. The Bent suite, thrillingly enlivened by the mastery and cohesion of this talented team, further soothed my spirit and opened my mind. These dramatic, contrasting short pieces throb with currents of life and transformation, despair and apotheosis. 

Glass, and the Brooklyn Riders, take familiar musical cadences, chord progressions, rhythms, and bend them through a prism, stretching out, slowing down, remolding, reinventing our experience of melody and form. The organs of sense must bend to encompass such aesthetic alchemy; in its thrall one feels almost a physical metamorphosis of the self.

Brooklyn Rider: Johnny Gandelsman, Eric Jacobsen,
Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords
Photo credit: Sarah Small
It takes special chemistry among performers to achieve this. Brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen on violin and cello, Johnny Gandelsman and Nicholas Cords on violin and viola, almost dance to the music they draw from their 16 strings. I’ve never seen a string quartet perform on its feet before (Eric Jacobsen sits on a raised platform to be at eye level with his colleagues), nor infuse its playing with such visual movement and appeal.

This band of musical brothers goes beyond chemistry into physics, with quantum connections nowhere more evident than in the last work before intermission, company member Colin Jacobsen's amusing, exhilarating Sheriff's Leid, Sheriff's Freude, a weirdly cartoonish fusion of classical, bluegrass, and the-yet-to-be-labeled. 
Photo credit: Sarah Small 
At this point in the program parallel universes began to shimmer in the staid concert hall. Wandering through fun-house mirrors of convention, hip-shooting at expectations,Sheriff astonishes with its originality, culminating in Colin Jacobsen's utterly unexpected, laugh-out-loud funny vocal solo near the end, and the trippy Looney-Toons climax. Space-time warps near creations of this magnitude. Art so close to the edge of the known universe does not lightly touch an audience. Like certain drug-induced or psychic experiences, there is no going back: you will never see or hear the world quite as before.

This remarkable first half laid the groundwork for the Beethoven String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, which followed John Zorn's solemn Kol Nidre at the top of the second set. Artists take liberties with a musical score by the mere act of lifting it from the page to the stage; the extreme technical challenges of Beethoven's late magnum opus demand new insight and intuition from every group that takes it on. I was aquiver to hear Brooklyn Rider’s approach, and was not disappointed, or fully prepared for what followed.

Brooklyn Rider infused the quartet's first movement with lusciously fluid tonalities and shapes; again images of the sun come to mind, as seen through a powerful telescope: impossibly huge and distant, but through the power of optics near enough to discern its vast, slow welling of energy and power, explosive force restrained by its own gravity. 

www.space.com

The following movements, some seamlessly flowing into one another, others separated out like beats in an unfolding chant, highlighted contrasts of pizzicato and legato, fortissimo clashes and pianissimo reconciliations, quantum waves of multi-layered sound and brittle particle interactions sparking muons of audio delight. While unerringly true to Beethoven’s score, Brooklyn Rider thrusts the German genius to the forefront of 21st century avant-garde. I will never hear this quartet, or possibly any Beethoven quartet, with quite the same ears. My doors of perception have been thrown open, and it's a new world.

By the end of the concert and that Seattle rarity, a third curtain call, my Sunday-night doldrums were dissipated, my heart and spirit refreshed and uplifted. Amazing, the power of music to transform the human condition.

Galaxy core
I suspect that music holds a deeper mystery than we yet fully conceive, in its correlation with elemental forces of nature, the fabric of the universe(s), and the unique role of human life in its discovery and exploration. I have no doubt that sentient beings on other worlds have also discovered its power through whatever organs of sense nature has created in countless permutations across the wide orchestral score of the cosmos. 

I hope, on the day human beings first thrill to the music of an alien race, that cutting-edge composers and artists like Brooklyn Rider will be credited with having prepared us to appreciate it.





January, 2012

Onyx Chamber Players at Town Hall


January 15, 2012, Town Hall, Seattle
The Onyx Chamber Players:
Meg Brennand, David White, James Garlick

Braving the snow and bridging the centuries with Schumann and Brahms
On Sunday night, January 15, 2012, with snow blanketing Capitol Hill in Seattle, a small but dedicated Town Hall audience was rewarded with a sparkling concert by the Onyx Chamber Players, Seattle's best-kept chamber music secret. Following the group's outstanding October concert of trios by Mozart, Debussy, and Shostakovich, Sunday's pairing of Schumann's 1842 Piano Quartet in E-flat with Brahms' Quartet in A, composed two decades later and five years after Schumann's tragically early death, was a fascinating musical and psychological study of the two composers.
Guest violist Melvin Butler
Pianist David White was in fine form in his brief pre-concert lecture, sharing insights into the music and the intertwined fates of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. White and his Onyx partners, violinist James Garlick and cellist Meg Brennand,  joined for this concert by Melvin Butler on the viola, flung themselves into the contrasting pieces with their inimitable élan and playfulness. The alternating sostenuto, allegro, scherzo, andante cantabile, and finale vivace of Schumann's quartet require a high level of ensemble discipline. After a slightly nervous start, the players quickly found their usual seamless cohesion, elegantly navigating Schumann's almost bi-polar changes of mood and rhythm.
The andante movement makes a special demand on the cellist, who must perform an unusual mid-movement "scordatura," or retuning of a string, from the low C string to a B-flat, and back again, all to produce a single note, or "organ point." Meg Brennand handled this potentially awkward maneuver graciously, though one is tempted to ask Schumann, posthumously, whether he mightn't have found a simpler way to achieve his desired effect.

The blazing finale, which echoes the quartet's "Finlandia"-like opening theme with an abbreviated three-note motif, achieved an intensity of emotion and energy spearheaded by James Garlick's ever-charming bravura and David White's unflagging piano work. The resounding finish brought closure to the work's battling elements, no easy task for a composition which, as Meg Brennand noted after the concert, struggles to "rise from the page," requiring an intuitive reach beyond the notes themselves to kindle Schumann's conflicted and fiery spirit.
In the second half of the program, Brahms' Quartet in A, the Onyx Chamber Players were at their very best, rendering the broad, layered strokes and romantic passion of Brahms with breathtaking subtlety of dynamics and tone. The standing ovation was a spontaneous response to an uplifting aesthetic experience and, perhaps, an acknowledgment of the genius and journeys of the two featured composers, who, across their overlapping lifetimes, built a bridge from the high classical periods of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, so influential on Schumann, to Brahms, who missed the 20th century by a mere three years.

Several opportunities remain to hear Onyx Chamber Players before the end of the season. A reprise of the Schumann-Brahms program is offered on February 25th at the Battelle Auditorium in Richland, WA, as part of the Camerata Music Series, and their annual all-Beethoven concert, March 18 at Town Hall, is always a delight. The final concert of the year, June 24th at Town Hall, will feature music from America and the British Isles.

Next in Seattle:
Annual all-Beethoven concert, Sunday, March 18th, 2011 at 7:00pm  - Downstairs at Town Hall Seattle -- 1119 Eighth Avenue, Seattle, WA

"Kommt mal, wer noch hört!"

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